Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: portrait

Kurt rejoined: Schwitters in Lakeland

A greyish day on a Lake District holiday is an opportunity for a pilgrimage to the modest shrine to Kurt Schwitters at the Armitt Museum in Ambleside. (For a previous post on Schwitters, see here.) Some years ago I searched the Lakes in vain for any traces of his presence, but now the Armitt sports a tidy little room with some thirty items. The weight is towards the effective but surprisingly conventional landscapes and portraits that were his bread and butter at the time, but there are a couple of Merz pieces too, plus – holy of holies – the faded sign to the now disembowelled MerzBarn at Elterwater. In the churchyard down the road at St Mary’s survives the headstone to the grave from which Schwitters’s body was removed to Hanover in 1970. Further south at Kendal the Abbot Hall Art Gallery hosts a small wall of Schwitters. All in all, a very worthwhile and tourable grouping of relics.


crossleyBarbara Crossley’s The Triumph of Kurt Schwitters, published in 2005 by the Armitt Trust, does not list or discuss in detail the works of this period, but does chronicle painstakingly his last years in the Lakes, following his release from internment in the Isle of Man in late 1941. Notwithstanding the self-sacrificial love and support of Schwitters’s partner Edith Thomas, it’s depressing to learn of the artist reduced to hanging about an Ambleside café, offering portrait sketches to customers for the price of a cup of tea, or working desperately on the barn, breathless and dying, his hands blue with the cold. It comes as a shock to realise that Schwitters died at the age of sixty. The subsequent neglect of his surviving work, followed by litigious bickering as prices later rose, does not make for good reading either. (Not that things are necessarily more sympathetic today. In the Armitt I was obliged to grit my teeth as some saloon bar know-it-all in hiking boots opined dismissively to his mate that the collages were “just patterns,” and that many of the works were probably labelled “Untitled” because the artist knew no English. )

Reviewing all this, I’m struck once again by the uncanny, almost miraculous even-handedness with which Schwitters maintained the two extreme polarities of his practice: the canon-busting inventiveness by which his collages bypass all expectations and still reach entirely satisfactory solutions, balanced by the comprehensive sanity of the observational work, as witnessed, among others, by the touching little pen and ink study of flowers at the Armitt.

Some of the Armitt and Abbot Hall items show up on the Art UK Schwitters page, but others are missing or beyond the scope of the site, so here are some selected snaps. (Click for enlarged slides. Any objections to my posting these, please contact me.) At the top left of the “YMCA Flag” collage is a portion of the envelope in which Schwitters received news of a grant towards the MerzBarn work from MOMA New York. Sorry about the reflections in this one; I find myself incorporated by the glass.


The taking of these photos coincided with a strange camera malfunction (perhaps more a photographer malfunction, if truth be told) in which entirely unfamiliar images arrived in the camera’s memory, while shots of Schwitters’s works deleted themselves only to reappear at will later. Unnerving. But all quite appropriate to a MerzBarn from which the Merz has been excavated and a grave that no longer holds a body.

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Lewis’s magisterial line

A pity, I feel, when a public gallery crowds out its walls with Victorian junk when it might fill them twice over with wonderful 20th century art that is never or rarely put on show. A good job, then, that a display of drawings from local schools at Wolverhampton Art Gallery (some excellent) gives a pretext to sprinkle in some gems from the vaults that would otherwise never see the light of day.

Including this modest but magisterial pen drawing by Wyndham Lewis, a portrait of Bernard Rowland done in 1921. (Click to enlarge.) I didn’t know that Wolverhampton even had this. The drawing is number 475 in Michel’s catalogue, and came from the Mayor Gallery, London. Lewis’s biographer Paul O’Keeffe mentions that Lewis, then homeless, stopped temporarily with Rowland, a friend, when he parted from Iris Barry in 1921, so this could have been done as a thank you gift and keepsake. Rowland may perhaps have been the fabric designer of that name, though that’s just a guess.

bernard-rowland

Lewis was at the peak of his graphic and observational powers at this period. Each arc here just sings with the confidence of its liberty, all conspiring to lead the eye to the exquisite construction of U’s and V’s forming the upper lip that provides a fulcrum to the image, and this despite (or because of) the prominent pentimento running down the nose and across the mouth, which somehow seems entirely right and necessary, echoing lines of cheek and jaw. And just look at the play-off between the eyes! I could go on.

Sorry about the reflections. I dare say I shouldn’t have taken a photo anyway.

Colquhoun and MacBryde by themselves and others

The new page on the Scottish painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde has been topped up with some scrounged images of the Terrible Twosome themselves, done by themselves or, in a couple of cases, by others.

We usually come across these in ones and twos, but it’s interesting to see them in a bunch. I know it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, but it’s hardly possible to have too much of the Two Roberts.

George Barker by Mervyn Peake

My first page of fragments on George Barker updated with an image of him by Mervyn Peake, artist, illustrator and author of the Gormenghast trilogy. (When will the BBC get round to repeating the excellent TV adaptation of Ghormenghast broadcast in 2000?) The Jessica Dismorr image of Barker on the same page makes an interesting comparison to this charcoal drawing by Mervyn Peake published in the London Mercury for June 1937. There seems to have been no particular connection between Barker and Peake, though both were in London at the time, and Peake wrote to Barker in the same month, presumably in connection with this. Peake was an inspired illustrator, and this is a pleasing image and a good likeness in its way, though with Peake’s portraits one feels that living people are seen through a lense of authorship, somehow tending towards the condition of characters. In effect, everyone is slightly Gormenghastified. Here, Barker could almost be a benevolent and sensitive elder brother to Steerpike.

Dylan Thomas by Jessica Dismorr

My first page of bits and pieces about George Barker included a somewhat idealised portrait drawing of the poet as a young dreamer by Jessica Dismorr, abstract painter and ex-Vorticist, dated to 1935. Here (left below) is a companion piece by Dismorr (given as 1934/35) of Dylan Thomas as a cherubic twenty year old, marked “DT” and initialled(?) by Dismorr. The technique is equally slack, and the effect equally Hollywood, but this is maybe a better likeness than the Barker. One wonders how many other bright young poets she sketched, perhaps in a back room at David Archer’s Parton Street Bookshop – David Gascoyne? John Cornford?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dismorr’s portrait paintings get away with it by virtue of their painterliness and superb colour sense, qualities that are not there to save the drawings. Nice little biographical curiosities, though. The Dylan Thomas is available at Wilson Stephens Fine Art, and you’d still get a bit of change back from two grand.